NAJAF, Iraq -- Anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who led several Shiite uprisings against American forces in Iraq before going into exile in neighboring Iran almost four years ago, returned to Iraq Wednesday.
Al-Sadr's return caps another dramatic rise to prominence for him and his followers after being routed by Iraqi and U.S. forces and appearing to fade from power just a few years ago. The strong showing by his bloc in last year's parliamentary elections and his key support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki paved the way for Wednesday's return.
His mere presence in the country he has not publicly visited for years was cause for jubilation among his supporters in his hometown of Najaf and around the country.
Al-Sadr visited the holy shrine of Imam Ali, revered among the country's Shiite majority, wearing a black turban distinguishing him as one of the descendants of the Prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam, and surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards who attempted to hold back a throng of supporters.
He also visited the grave of his father, who was assassinated during Saddam Hussein's regime, before heading to his house.
Sadrist supporters from Baghdad including top-ranking officials in his political faction streamed to Najaf for the occasion and his followers chanted "Imam Ali is with you" through the streets of the southern city.
"He is our hero. We sacrificed for him. He said 'No' to the Americans and fought the Americans, and he is brave," said Mohammed Ali, one of al-Sadr's followers.
It was not immediately clear how long al-Sadr would stay in Iraq or whether the return marked a permanent decision to remain in the country, where his presence would mark a seismic shift in Iraqi politics. But at least one official from the Sadrist office in Najaf said he would remain in Iraq. The official did not want to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
An official with al-Maliki's office confirmed a plane carrying al-Sadr flew into the southern city earlier Wednesday afternoon. He did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Al-Sadr has not been seen publicly in Iraq since 2007, and at one point an arrest warrant even hung over al-Sadr's head for his alleged role in assassinating a fellow Shiite cleric seen as a rival shortly after the U.S. invasion in 2003.
He has been living in Iran, studying Islam in Qom, the seat of Shiite education, and rarely makes public visits abroad. Last fall, he traveled to Syria for a meeting with former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who was challenging al-Maliki for the premiership.
His militia, called the Mahdi Army, once led bloody uprisings against American forces, and al-Sadr has made opposition to any continued American military presence in Iraq a cornerstone of his ideology. The feared Mahdi Army was blamed by Sunnis for some of the worst sectarian violence in 2006-2007.
Al-Maliki in 2008 launched an offensive against al-Sadr's followers in their Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City and the southern city of Basra. The show of force infuriated many of his Shiite allies but also demonstrated al-Maliki's willingness to go after all militias, even those representing his own sect.
Hundreds of al-Sadr's followers were jailed during those operations.
Enmity between al-Sadr and al-Maliki runs deep, but after months of vowing to never allow al-Maliki to return for a second term, al-Sadr and his followers eventually backed him.
The decision is believed to have been taken after intense pressure from neighboring Iran, which would like to solidify Shiite control of Iraq. But questions have also been raised about what al-Sadr and his followers received for their support. Iraqi officials have said that hundreds of his followers have been released from jail -- a key Sadrist demand.
Iraqis in many southern provinces and parts of eastern Baghdad where the Sadrists dominate have reported intimidation by Sadrist members who are feeling more powerful in light of their alliance with their one-time enemy and their triumphant return to Iraqi politics.
Iraqi political analyst Hadi Jalo told The Associated Press that the return of the man reviled by American forces also underscores the U.S.'s waning political influence in Iraq as American forces prepare to leave the country entirely by the end of this year.
"Now, the anti-U.S. political figures, whether Shiite or Sunnis, are feeling that they are more confident now and their role in shaping Iraq's future is expanding. The Iraqi government is ready more than ever to accept and include figures known for their anti-U.S. stances," he said. "The Sadrists now are politically stronger than ever and they are aware of their importance in Iraq's political life."